Saturday, September 24, 2011

Dial "G" for Gator

Over a year ago. I posted a picture and wrote a blog entry about a piece of obsolete telephone technology- the rotary phone relay. At the time I mentioned my plans to turn it into an exhibit for Mindport, which I've finally accomplished. See a picture above. I've christened this creation, "Dial G for Gator." It's not that you'll necessarily see the gator when you dial "G." The name refers to a fifties Hitchcock thriller, "Dial M for Murder," the perfect vintage for this technology. But when you manipulate the dial you will occasionally call up an ominously toothy character hiding behind the left hand window.

Through the window on the right you can see two views of the telephone dial mechanism. We've had push-button dialing for so long that younger people have probably never even seen a dial telephone, except perhaps in old movies. When you dial a digit a train of electrical pulses is generated, one pulse for each digit traversed by the dial as it returns to its resting position. Looking through the window you can watch the operation of this clever mechanism, which includes a "worm drive," a speed regulator, and a pair of contacts that generate the dialing pulses.

Through the two left-hand windows you see front and side views of the rotary relay. As it receives dialing pulses from the dial, its main commutator rotates, making a new contact for every pulse sent from the dial. In the days before the advent of solid state electronics, there were huge rooms of these rotary relays, which were linked in such a way that pulses coming from the dial of your phone triggered a series of them, thereby selecting your desired party from thousands of others. Needless to say these rooms full of rotary relays generated quite a din!

Having been born just before the era of the dial telephone, in the days when we had multiple parties sharing one line, and you had to ask an operator to connect you to the number you wanted, I feel a certain nostalgia for such visually accessible technology. The way it worked was fascinating, and you could actually SEE it, not to speak of take it apart and learn something from it. As I touched on in my 2010 entry, the down side of today's complex, micro-miniature electronic technology is that the details of its operation are no longer visually apparent. No matter what the function, all that young eyes can see upon inspecting, say, a modern cordless phone's guts, is a lot of tiny, static components on a circuit board. Some of the components have become so small you can hardly see them at all.

The irony of  miniaturization and complexity is that technology has become so inaccessible that it no longer has the ability to inspire the interest of young people who might eventually grow up to be engineers, scientist, and technologists, the very sorts who create new technology in the first place. I've read that we're now suffering a dearth of technical skills in this country, which necessitates the importation of engineers from overseas. There are political and economic reasons for this, to be sure, but I suspect that it's also true that the complex miniaturization of technology could become partially responsible for its own downfall. Hence, one reason we at Mindport have avoided including computers and other visually inaccessible technology (with one or two exceptions) in our exhibits, is that we believe that relatively low-tech exhibits are inherently more interesting, especially to young people who nowadays are rarely exposed to the mechanically intriguing mechanisms of earlier eras.

Come in and visit "Gator." It should be up in our gallery by the second week of October.

Kevin Jones

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